As It Happens

Gay priests used as 'convenient scapegoat' for Vatican sex abuse: LGBTQ advocate

Before the four-day meeting had even started, a number of senior bishops stated that the Catholic Church is not the problem — homosexuality is.

Leadership acknowledges there is no link between abuse and orientation — but 'fringe' priests won't let it go

People take part in the March for Zero Tolerance in Rome during the Vatican's four-day meeting on Catholic church's global sexual abuse crisis. (Riccardo Antimiani/EPA-EFE)

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While Vatican leadership have largely denounced the idea that homosexuality is to blame for sex abuse in the church, certain "fringe" elements are keeping the thoroughly debunked notion alive, says an advocate for LGBTQ Catholics.

During a four-day Vatican conference last week on sexual abuse by priests, concerns about a "gay lobby" infesting the church came up repeatedly during group discussions, the New York Times reports

Before the summit even began, Cardinals Raymond Burke of the U.S, and Walter Brandmuller of Germany published a joint letter blaming clerical abuse on "the plague of the homosexual agenda."

All available evidence shows there is no connection between sexual orientation and the likelihood of committing sexual abuse.

Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization that fights for the acceptance LGBTQ individuals in the church, was at the conference. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Are you leaving Rome feeling that something was accomplished?

I came to Rome to focus on the issue of the scapegoating of gay priests in the clergy sex abuse crisis, and I'm leaving  very encouraged that the high levels of the Vatican seem to discount the idea that gay priests are the problem in the sex abuse crisis.

But there were a lot of clergy at the conference who insisted that that was missing from the agenda, that that is what should have been the main theme — what they call the "gay culture" in the Vatican, the "gay culture" in the priesthood — and that's the root of the problem with the sexual abuse. What did you hear at the conference from those people?

There were some bishops who who wanted a discussion of the topic of gay priests, but they, I think, were in the minority.

We also have to remember that this was a global meeting, and so a number of the bishops were from countries where they don't have an understanding of homosexuality as a naturally occurring way of being of the world. 

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of Catholic gay rights group New Ways Ministry, poses for a photo in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2015. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

There were a number of bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America who were saying that the failure to connect homosexuality to sexual abuse is a flaw .... but we also hear from a number of prelates from the United States and from Europe. And I'm thinking of this letter that an American cardinal and a German cardinal published together talking about a "conspiracy of silence" about the "plague of the homosexual agenda." So it's not exclusively countries from from Africa or Asia.

I think that those bishops from the U.S., from Europe who are saying it are really on the fringe of the church. They do not represent the mainstream of Catholic thought and even Catholic leadership thought.

Most of the Catholic bishops of the U.S. recognize and accept the 2004 ... John Jay College of Criminal Justice report that the bishops had commissioned, which said that the idea that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked is rubbish. And other reports have borne out the same conclusion.

To what degree do you think that these people who are trying to claim that the homosexuals in the church that are responsible ... prevent the church from actually grappling with the issue?

It becomes a red herring. ... I think we think of this as a sexual problem, but it really is a governance problem as well. 

Governance in what way? 

The way that the bishops have handled their priests. The way the Vatican has dealt with bishops. The way that bishops have dealt with accusations.

All of these more governmental issues are really at the heart of the problem — that bishops didn't want to take responsibility, that bishops accused victims of wanting to destroy the church, that bishops tried to silence victims of abuse.

Pope Francis attends the Eucharistic celebration on the sidelines of the sex abuse summit on Sunday. (Giuseppe Lami/EPA-EFE)

If there are those who blame it on gays within the church as a way of escaping from that responsibility, do you think that that's part of it?

It's a convenient scapegoat. You know gay people have, from time immemorial, been tarred with the image that they prey on children.

Statistics show two things: One, that the number of men who abuse children ... are primarily heterosexual in orientation. And two, that abusers use opportunity.

In the Catholic Church, priests are usually supervising male children rather than female children. So the opportunity to abuse a child just happens to be  male child, which is who are in their presence.

This is not about sexual attraction. This is about power. This is about power and the the need to dominate or assert power over the people. We're not talking about love or sexual desire here.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Richard Raycraft. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.